Comparing and Contrasting Yesterday's Military Coup in Egypt with the Military Coup in Pakistan in 1999

In trying to assess the implications of the coup for the future of democracy in Egypt, I think that it is useful to compare and contrast this coup with Pakistan’s coup on October 12, 1999 in which General Musharaff overthrew Nawaz Sharif, the then (and now) democratically elected prime minister of Pakistan.  The coup in Pakistan was bloodless, and thus far the Egyptian coup has been relatively bloodless.   Sharif, like Morsi, was not consulting parliament broadly; in fact, his principle advisers were his father and brother. Both Morsi and Sharif in his term that ended in 1999 systematically worked to undermine the role and power of the judiciary.  (Of course, Musharaff went much further than Sharif in attempting to defrock the Supreme Court, an unwise move that ultimately brought Musharaff down.)  When Sharif fell, social activists, secularists and opposing political parties celebrated in the streets.

But there are important points of contrast too.  First, the Egyptian coup enjoyed much more broad based popular support, being announced by General Sisi flanked in a coordinated show of support not only by military leaders, but religious and political leaders as well. Indeed, the extent of social mobilization in the 72 hours preceding the coup was of a magnitude exponentially greater than popular support for military coups in Pakistan.  Second, rather than appointing himself as Chief Executive, as Musharaff did in 1999, Egypt’s General Sisi appointed a transitional government headed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court.  Third, upon announcing the coup, the military actually put forward a policy proposal, a roadmap for national reconciliation, that was endorsed by a broad base of constituencies.  Fourth, unlike Pakistan, which has had five coups, Egypt has not made military coups a habit … yet.  And here we come to a crucial question in trying to assess the trajectory of democracy in Egypt.  Will the Egyptian military develop interventionist habits?  That is what worries me the most.  Pakistan this year, for the first time in its 66 year history, had its first transition from one democratically elected government to another.  The election showed the value of repeat elections and the importance of democratic transitions no matter how inept the outgoing democratic regime may be.  But does that suggest that the US intervene at this stage in Egypt?  Absolutely not.  Too often within the Beltway a bloated sense of America’s power to control events carries the day.

We are witnessing a very complex political pathology with deep historical roots in Egypt.  Intervention would be foolhardy.  Should the US continue to support the Egyptian military?  Only if that support is meaningfully contingent upon a reasonably rapid return to a democratically elected government.

Erik G. Jensen is a professor of the practice of law at Stanford Law School, director of the law school’s Rule of Law Program, and an affiliated faculty member at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University (FSI). A lawyer trained in Britain and the United States, he has, for the last 25 years, taught, practiced and written about the field of law and development in 30 countries.He has been a Fulbright scholar, a consultant to the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the African Development Bank, and a representative of The Asia Foundation, where he currently serves as a senior advisor for governance and law. His teaching and research activities explore various dimensions of reform aimed at strengthening the rule of law, including the political economy of reform; the connections between legal systems and the economies, polities and societies in which they are situated; and the relationship of Islam to the rule of law. As co-director of the Rule of Law Program, Jensen serves as faculty advisor to student-driven projects in Afghanistan, Bhutan, Timor-Leste, and Iraq that, with strong local partnerships, develop legal tools in these developing democracies. His full bio can be found here